The writing is about the writing. Publishing is about timing. -- The World According to Garp by John Irving
Garp happens to be one of my favourite novels of all time. It’s got everything: politics, fate, the women’s movement and feminism taken to the extreme. As a matter fact, the entire story is existentialism to the extreme. In the above quote, Garp is having a heated discussion with his publisher because he is upset that his mother’s book became an instant sensation, and yet his artistic work, which was much better written, seemed to have little value. Most savvy writers, self-published or not, understand this dynamic. The writing is about the art and the craft, but publishing is about making money. It’s a business. This became glaringly obvious over the past few weeks when I ran into this review of Crichton’s posthumously released “Pirates Latitudes” where the reviewer, Chad Roedemeier states: "It's pointless to complain about the cardboard characters, dreadful action-movie dialogue and wildly improbable plot points [...]. Sure, "Pirate Latitudes" has all that, in spades, but you don't buy a Crichton book for psychological acuity and dramatic realism. It's supposed to be disposable fun, a book that sits out front in bookstores and attracts readers with the author's name printed larger than the title."
Wow. Now that was a pretty harsh review -- accurate but harsh. I can't argue that much of mainstream mass-market fiction is simply pure entertainment. There is no higher calling beyond disposable fun -- a light read to lift the spirit -- and many writers like writing it and make a fine living at it. For James Bond type books, implausible is the name of the game, and not every writer can write implausible well. Yes, there is a craft to writing for the mass-market too, and one shouldn’t turn one’s nose up at it. It has its place in the world of the written word, and from time to time, I read a bit myself, even if I do like it when mass-market genre fiction writers wax literary. Probably why I adore Lindsay’s Dexter series so much. The writing is definitely mainstream kitschery -- not a real word, I am taking poetic license -- but thematically, it offers the depth of character that literary works are known for, sans the stylistic approach to the language. And this leads me to the argument often made by self-published authors that mainstream fiction is crap. Well, you know what, it isn’t ... if you look at it objectively. Most self-published authors would like to, I am sure, but the hypocrisy tends to chafe a bit. Self-published authors get slammed all the time for overindulgent and overwritten work with many of the same problems the reviewer found in Crichton’s work. Why is that? Why are self-published authors drawn and quartered for writing what mass-market readers have come to appreciate? On the opposite end, I also hear a lot of: “trying too hard to be literary, too purple, too complex, too confusing,” and sometimes, with self-published books, this is the case. However, often in mass-market fiction the same can be said in reverse, that the writers aren’t trying hard enough, that their standards are on par with the average crappy action film. No matter the diatribe on both sides, sadly, this isn’t a battle between Self-publishers and Traditionally published authors, this is a debate that has been raging for some time amongst readers and literary critics. The reason for the debate is simply that most readers don’t know what bad writing is and many critics/reviewers don’t either. A cliché is not necessarily bad writing; it depends on the context. To me, bad writing is a technical thing. Badly written means grammatically and conventionally unsound. Poor words choices, improper punctuation, ineptly placed clauses, poor story construction -- all this reduces clarity. Proust might have written sentences that were seven pages long, but you understand what he is saying. Speaking of Proust...
Over on Nathan Bransford’s Blog he made some very good points on the subject by saying: "When writers start thumbing their nose at dense and challenging literature solely because it's hard to read it really starts verging on reverse snobbery. I understand that everyone has different tastes, but there is no pride in ignorance of literary fiction. Genre writers can learn from literary fiction, just as literary writers can learn from genre fiction. There's a middle ground. Now. Does someone who wants to crank out genre novels need to spend all of their time reading Proust? Probably not. But to thumb one's nose at literary writing because it's hard to understand is to stop learning about what is possible with words. Writers ignore good writing at their peril."
Despite the choice of words, I don’t think that Mr. Bransford was stating that literary works are “good writing” compared to genre fiction which is in contrast “bad writing.” We all know what bad writing looks like, and just because some of the writing conventions are different between literary fiction and mass-market genre fiction doesn’t make one lesser than the other.
For me, as a writer of literary fiction, I often look to mass-market fiction to improve my technique when it comes to pacing in particular. Literary works can and often do get lost meandering about as they explore their thematic elements. There is poetic syntax, metaphorical conundrums, philosophical rhetoric, and symbolism out the whazzoo. With all of these wonderful artistic liberties at our disposal, it’s easy to get lost in ambiguity. I find that genre fiction helps me keep the writing tight and the story on mark. So, there isn’t anything wrong with a literary writer who goes light on the scenery and heavy on the action, and there isn’t anything wrong with a genre writer who gets a bit stylish and philosophical with their words. There are benefits to both approaches when it comes to story telling, and both can be combined to great effect.
So what I am saying here is that beyond truly bad writing, everything else is subjective. Don’t fall prey to the accusations being flung all tight-fisted in this debate. Just write what you love the way you want to write it. The trick is creating a believable illusion. To do that you need to mean what you say and say what you mean. Anything less is badly written. If you get fancy at the expense of clarity, you have made a wrong turn, and if you dumb it down too much, you wind up patronizing your readers. Writing conventions -- POV, plotting, character arcs, dialog, showing and telling -- and the rules of grammar exist for good reason. It’s about consistency and clarity. Grammar is not about control; it's about clarity, purely and simply. Now I am not saying one should not bend or break the rules occasionally. I am saying that a writer needs to know and understand the rules before they decide to throw their arms up in the air and declare that all editors are Nazis and are trying to oppress the “art.” Art is the abstract articulation of an idea. Ineptly placed clauses are not art. So, from an editorial standpoint, I advise all writers to learn and understand the writing conventions and the rules of grammar before they attempt to bend or break them. Understanding the rules and conventions means the difference between looking like an artistic anarchist and looking like an illiterate hack.
Cheryl Anne Gardner recommends that all authors own at least one “grammatical” style guide and one “literary” style guide. Good grammar is the foundation of good writing. In this case, I use “Words into Type” but you can use Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style,” “The Chicago Manual of Style,” or if you can’t afford to purchase one of these Purdue University has a nice basic grammar library online. Whichever you choose, read them until your eyes bleed. As for literary style guides, I am a rather vocal against literary style guides, but, you need to know the standard conventions, so I suggest all authors own one that at least covers the basics. You can get into advanced theory as you go along, if you want to, but as a starting point, I generally recommend “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.” These books can help good writing become great writing. They will help you understand the rules so you can make educated decisions on the if, when, and how to bend or break them. Even authors with degrees in English and Literature still have to refer back to their guides from time to time, and even then, it doesn’t mean we won’t make the occasional misstep; it just means that the occasional misstep literally means occasional.